Analysis: 2013 session mixes substance, silliness

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi lawmakers approved substantial public policy changes during their 2013 session, with an emphasis on trying new approaches to public education.

However, they ended their three-month gathering Thursday without funding Medicaid or even agreeing to keep the program alive once the new fiscal year begins July 1. That big piece of unfinished business guarantees that Republican Gov. Phil Bryant will call lawmakers back for a special session sometime before the end of June. He says he’ll do so only after there’s an agreement on keeping Medicaid alive in its current form.

House Democrats want to expand Medicaid, but Bryant says the state can’t afford to add another 300,000 people to the program that already covers more than 640,000 in a state of 3 million residents.

Lawmakers grabbed national headlines in 2013 — and not necessarily in a way that helped the state’s image.

Mississippi has long been the most obese state in the nation. Lawmakers passed and Bryant signed Senate Bill 2687, the “Big Gulp” bill, which becomes law July 1. It said local governments can’t limit the size of soft drinks or require restaurants to post nutrition information on menus. It was a reaction to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt last year — since blocked by a court — to restrict the sale of sugary drinks in the nation’s biggest city.

“If you want to go eat 20 Big Macs, you can eat 20 Big Macs,” Rep. Gregory Holloway, D-Hazlehurst, said in pushing the bill.

Two House bills that died early in the session tried to make Mississippi defy federal authority — a tactic that generally tends to fall flat because federal law takes precedent over conflicting state laws. One would’ve created a state commission to try to nullify some federal laws. Another would’ve prohibited the state from enforcing any federal limits on guns.

Senators also spent nearly an hour one morning debating, and finally adopting, a resolution that commends Israel. Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, said the resolution tried to define Israel’s borders, which have changed over time.

“I think all of us support Israel, but it is not for us to hold forth as to what the boundaries of the country ought to be,” an exasperated Bryan told his colleagues.

Legislators approved most of a nearly $5.7 billion budget, agreeing to put about $300 million into cash reserves to provide a financial cushion in case of economic downturn.

Republicans and Democrats are blaming each other for the impasse on the Medicaid budget and reauthorization. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, told reporters that he believes the public will blame all lawmakers for the mess, regardless of party affiliation.

“I know where we’re headed,” Frierson said on the session’s closing day. “We’ll have the entire Legislature in a septic tank. When we all climb out … we’ll have the same poo-poo on us.”

Lawmakers approved a $196 million bond package, which will allow the state to take on long-term debt for big projects. The package includes $31 million for construction of a new medical school building at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, a project that Bryant says eventually will help ease the shortage of physicians in the state.

Legislators left other unfinished business, including appointments to some boards.

In the session’s final week, Bryant withdrew his nomination of anti-abortion activist Terri Herring of Ridgeland to the state Board of Health. His action came hours after The Associated Press questioned Bryant’s staff about a state law that requires the 11 Board of Health members to come from specific parts of the state. With Herring’s nomination, the board would have too many members from central Mississippi and one too few from the north. Bryant said he intends to nominate Herring to the board sometime in the future, when geography allows. The Board of Health, meanwhile, will operate indefinitely with 10 members.

On the final day of the session, the Senate Education Committee rejected the nomination of Joel Bomgar to a seat on the nine-member state Board of Education. Bomgar, of Jackson, owns a software company. He was home-schooled and serves on the board of the conservative Mississippi Center for Public Policy, a group that pushed for charter schools. Some senators questioned Bomgar’s commitment to public schools, and he told them he wanted to bring fresh ideas to the state board. Bomgar was nominated by House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton. Gunn said he didn’t know how soon he’ll select another nominee.

Legislators passed bills to allow expansion of charter schools and put more emphasis on reading skills in early elementary grades. They voted to consolidate some school districts.

“It’s important we ensure every child in Mississippi has an opportunity for success,” Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said about the education changes.

Charter schools receive public money, but they are free of some regulations that most public schools face. Charters, for example, can set different operating hours or try different academic approaches. Rep. Charles Busby, R-Pascagoula, was one of the most outspoken supporters of charter schools in the House, but he said charters won’t work miracles.

“We don’t get to dust off our hands and say, ‘We’re done,’” Busby said. “The majority of our children in Mississippi are going to continue to be educated in traditional public schools.”

Among the bills already signed by Bryant are:

— House Bill 485, which removes concealed carry gun permits from public records. Legislators said they were responding to a New York newspaper’s publication of the names of local residents who had such permits. The bill became law when Bryant signed it March 4.

— Senate Bill 2633, which becomes law July 1. It will require all Mississippi school districts to adopt a policy to allow a “limited public forum” at school events such as football games or morning announcements, to let students express religious beliefs. The policy must include a disclaimer that such student speech “does not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position or expression of the district.” Bear Atwood, legal director for ACLU of Mississippi, said she thinks the law “has serious constitutional issues.” She said the ACLU will wait to see if there’s proselytizing in public schools before deciding whether to file a lawsuit. A nonprofit conservative group, Liberty Counsel, said it will provide free legal representation to schools or districts if the law is challenged in court.

— Senate Bill 2419, which becomes law July 1. It says state boards can issue a temporary or permanent license to someone transferred to Mississippi because of a spouse’s military job, if the person already has a professional license from another state. This could affect teachers, cosmetologists, accountants, engineers, real estate brokers, physicians, nurses and other medical professionals. People with temporary licenses can start working while applying for permanent ones. The new law also says people who learn job skills in the military can count that experience as they work toward licensure, certification or registration in their fields in civilian life.

Among the bills that passed both chambers and await the governor’s consideration are:

— House Bill 1009, which would allow the state Department of Human Services to hire private companies to carry out many of its duties, including collection of overdue child support payments. If signed, it would become law July 1.

— Senate Bill 2795, which would require that a physician be present when a woman takes abortion-inducing drugs, and require that the woman have a follow-up physical examination two weeks later. Bryant is expected to sign the bill, which would become law July 1.

— House Bill 151, which would require the collection of umbilical cord blood from a newborn, when possible, if the underage mother refuses to identify the father of the baby. Bryant said running DNA tests on the blood could “identify deadbeat dads.” Bryant has said he intends to sign the bill, which would become law July 1.

— Senate Bill 2659, which would help local school districts hire armed law enforcement officers. The bill, which would become law July 1 if signed, is a reaction to the fatal shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

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Online:

Mississippi Legislature: http://www.legislature.ms.gov/Pages/default.aspx

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